Throwing the Dice on a Veep Pick

Geography, demographics, ideology, talent, and rectitude play a role—and so do political circumstances.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 16, 2016, 8 p.m.

When people dis­cuss vice pres­id­en­tial run­ning mates, I’m al­ways sur­prised that they tend to get fix­ated on one factor to the ex­clu­sion of everything else. The truth is that there are a lot of con­sid­er­a­tions in se­lect­ing a run­ning mate. Among them are geo­graphy, demo­graph­ics, ideo­logy, abil­ity, and po­ten­tial skel­et­ons in the closet. Then there is an elu­sive and in­tan­gible X factor, when a se­lec­tion might be wise but some­what un­pre­dict­able. Of course there is also the mat­ter of wheth­er a veep pro­spect would make a good pres­id­ent, but let’s not get macabre here.

A run­ning mate from Ohio or Flor­ida might help carry those states, and in a very close race, a Vir­gini­an might be a plus. A can­did­ate who ap­peals to a whole re­gion has an ob­vi­ous ad­vant­age, but few fit the bill.

In 2012, the turnout rate among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans ex­ceeded that of whites for the first time. What are the odds of that hap­pen­ing again in 2016? Prob­ably not great, so maybe Sen. Cory Book­er would be a good pick for Hil­lary Clin­ton. Rep. Xavi­er Be­cerra, Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment Sec­ret­ary Ju­li­an Castro, and his broth­er, Rep. Joa­quin Castro, have ob­vi­ous demo­graph­ic ap­peal, but an ar­gu­ment can be made that nobody gets out the Latino vote like Don­ald Trump.

Now con­sider ideo­logy. In Janu­ary, I did a dog-and-pony show with James Carville in the polit­ic­al-sci­ence class he teaches at Tu­lane. As James has been known to say, “I got a 4.0 back at LSU”—adding, “of course that was my blood-al­co­hol level.” Any­way, at one point James asked his stu­dents to raise their hands if they con­sidered them­selves Demo­crats, and roughly half did. He then asked the Demo­crats in the class to raise their hands if they were en­thu­si­ast­ic about a tick­et headed by Hil­lary Clin­ton. One hand went up. Ouch.

He then asked how many of the Demo­crats would be en­thu­si­ast­ic if she were the nom­in­ee and se­lec­ted as her run­ning mate a cer­tain white, male Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or from a swing state that has of­ten been men­tioned as a pos­sible choice (name with­held to avoid em­bar­rass­ing that per­son). The same one hand went up. Then he asked how many of them would be en­thu­si­ast­ic if Clin­ton chose Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren as her run­ning mate. It sure looked to me like every single Demo­crat­ic hand went up. Wow, what a great way to make a point. Clin­ton might have to pivot left to en­sure a strong turnout, par­tic­u­larly among those who backed Bernie Sanders.

The choice of a run­ning mate of­ten says a lot about a pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee’s polit­ic­al cir­cum­stances. Not long after John Mc­Cain’s 2008 loss to Barack Obama, I asked someone who was a top ad­viser to Mc­Cain about the de­cision to pick Sarah Pal­in. The ex­plan­a­tion went something like this: Mc­Cain des­per­ately wanted to pick either Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Lieber­man or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. The ad­visers pushed back hard, ar­guing that both favored abor­tion rights and that the del­eg­ates would burn the con­ven­tion hall to the ground if he picked any­one who wasn’t an­ti­abor­tion.

Mc­Cain was roughly 20 points be­hind with wo­men and run­ning about dead even with men, which trans­lated in­to be­ing be­hind Obama by 10 or 12 points. Pres­id­ent Bush was ra­dio­act­ive, so any­body with a con­nec­tion to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was dis­qual­i­fied. It was bad enough that Mc­Cain had been a mem­ber of Con­gress since 1982, and his team didn’t want to com­pound the prob­lem with an­oth­er mem­ber of that in­sti­tu­tion. It would be bet­ter, in fact, to pick someone who had nev­er worked in Wash­ing­ton.

The pick had to be an­ti­abor­tion and really needed to be someone who could chip away at Obama’s enorm­ous lead among wo­men. A pro­cess of elim­in­a­tion nar­rowed the list down to a fairly small num­ber, and out popped Sarah Pal­in. Was it a fourth-and-long situ­ation? Yes, it was a gamble. Stand­ing in that St. Paul con­ven­tion hall that night, Pal­in gave a pretty good speech, and for a day or two it looked like it might have been a de­cent bet. Then the bot­tom fell out.

Some­times in­tan­gible factors are de­cis­ive. In 1992, Al Gore’s name was scarcely men­tioned as a po­ten­tial run­ning mate for Bill Clin­ton. He was Clin­ton’s dop­pel­gang­er in age, race, geo­graphy, and ideo­logy. But the sum was deemed great­er than the parts. So Clin­ton doubled down, the chem­istry between the two men and their wives worked, and it turned out to be a great choice—at least through the elec­tion.

The truth is that run­ning-mate choices are usu­ally sur­prises. Some­times they seemed like a good idea at the time but didn’t work out, oth­er times the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee was giv­en cred­it for hav­ing a golden touch. If someone asks you to bet on what Hil­lary Clin­ton or Don­ald Trump will do, keep your wal­let in your pock­et.

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